Wednesday, August 26, 2009

First Course

Visited on Tuesday, August 18th with Erin T. and Nick

Outside First Course

Ben's Review
Our friends Erin (ErinT) and Nick were visiting from New York so we planned on going out for dinner one night while they were back. Erin (my Erin) gave me a list of several restaurants to choose three from, and she sent those three on to ErinT. ErinT settled on First Course in south Minneapolis so we arranged to meet at 7pm on a Tuesday night.

First Course doesn't look like much from the outside. The sidewalk is very wide which gives them plenty of space for a patio. The restaurant is attached to the shops on either side of it, in a sort of neighborhood strip mall.

The inside, however, has a much different feel. They've decorated in a chic, urban way that almost would fit in better in uptown. One thing that I didn't even notice until later in the meal is that the north wall is mostly made of plywood, though it goes perfectly with the rest of the room, I thought it was a very clever way to make the place look cool on the cheap.

Inside First Course

We were seated right away at a bistro table in the bar area. They also have regular tables around the restaurant as well. The one downside with our location is that we had the sun coming right in the windows into my face for the first twenty minutes or so. It took quite awhile for someone to actually greet us and bring us water, maybe 10 minutes? Once we got service the wait staff turned out to be knowledgeable and friendly.

ErinT and Nick ordered a bottle of an Argentinian wine that was really good (though I think Charles Shaw is also good, so take this with a grain of salt) while we chatted and enjoyed the warm bread. I wonder how long you could eat bread at a restaurant without actually ordering anything? There are several places I could do this and be completely satisfied, First Course is one of those places.

Wine (bottle 1)

I decided on the cornmeal encrusted tilapia after much deliberation. They have several pastas that sounded great, but I had had pasta for dinner the past couple nights so I was hankering for something else. My tilapia came on a bed of mixed greens with other veggies and a lemon vinaigrette, the entire thing was fantastic, though if we go back I think I'd try Nick's butternut squash ravioli - holy crap that looked good!

Cornmeal Crusted Tilapia

Squash Ravioli
(Squash Ravioli)

We ordered another bottle of wine and dessert to share, the warm German chocolate cake and the Tres Leches Cake from the menu. These desserts were both awesome, I'm a sucker for warm cake. We left full and I left a little tipsy, thankfully Erin is the designated driver for awhile!

German Chocolate Cake
  • Service: Not good at first, but once we got service they were great.
  • Food: Excellent tilapia, and the pastas are creative and delicious.
  • Drinks: Large wine list and a full bar, I saw no evidence of a happy hour, but I could be wrong here.
  • Ambiance: I felt like I was in an uptown restaurant without the loud music and annoying people, it was great :)
  • Price: We were there on half price wine night, so that was cool. The entrees range from $12-$25. The pastas are in the lower range, which makes them a great deal.
  • Convenience: First Course is located right near Todd Park with plenty of street parking (another benefit over uptown).
Erin's Review
As Ben mentioned, the process of choosing a restaurant for this evening was a little time consuming. When going through our list now, I now have to decide where I am willing to go and not have wine, and make sure there are enough entree choices with no forbidden foods on them. It's tougher than I thought!

When we got to First Course, I was a little put off by the outside appearance, it being in kind of a dingy strip mall. It was quite nice inside, however. I'm not sure I'd rave about it QUITE as much as Ben did, but it was certainly an upgrade from what I thought it would be from the outside. We were seated in the last 4 top available, the place was pretty full for a Tuesday night. It appeared there was only 1 or 2 servers working, and we waited quite awhile before even getting waters. This annoyed me a lot, but they redeemed themselves as the night went on. Finally we got our waters, and then after another long wait, got our bread. The bread was definitely fresh and warm which was a good thing after that wait.


I based my entree choice solely off the side dish offered. The gorgonzola and parmesan risotto was calling my name at that moment, so chicken roulade it was! It wasn't too long of wait to get our food, thankfully. I really enjoyed this meal - as expected, I liked the risotto more so than the chicken, but the whole thing was delicious. It was enough for 2 full meals for me, and was great for lunch the next day. Worth noting is the fact that they were very accomodating of Erin T requesting a meal with no dairy in it whatsoever - the server was very knowledgable of what could be replaced and showed no signs of being annoyed at her request.

Chicken Roulade

As I watched Nick, Erin T and Ben drink their wine (1/2 priced bottles on Tuesdays!), I decided that I WOULD be having dessert, which was my primary reason for not eating more of my entree. It was tough to decide what to order, so I just went with 2 in hopes that someone would share with me - and they did :) I loved both the german chocolate and the tres leches cakes equally - the chocolate was warm and gooey and the tres leches cake was lighter and citrusy with lime zest - they complemented each other perfectly.

Tres Leches Cake

I loved First Course, and would definitely return there in the future! Cozy and warm ambiance and wonderful food.

First Course
5607 Chicago Avenue South

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Il Vesco Vino

Visited on Sunday, August 1st


Erin's Review
I used to volunteer every Sunday night from 4-8, and to celebrate my first completely free Sunday, I wanted to go out to eat. Since pretty much the only thing I've been wanting lately is bland carbs, a fairly generic Italian place seemed like it would fit the bill. Il Vesco Vino was the chosen destination.

Since we were there on a weeknight, they had a $25 deal where you get a salad, entree and dessert which is exactly what I wanted. I got the bibb salad, which was delicious - fruit and blue cheese is my favorite type of salad, so I was set.


The stuffed shells is the real reason I chose this place for our dinner - what can I say, I just wanted some pasta and a lot of cheese :) I figured the spinach was just a nutritional bonus. They were pretty good, but not the best I've had. I could only finish about 1/3 of it, but that just meant I got to bring the leftovers for lunch which is my favorite part of going to places with huge portions :)



I chose the carrot cake for dessert, which was quite good. I loved the caramel drizzle especially. Of course, I was already full, but I still managed to eat most of it! Since I'm without alcohol for the next 5.5 months, I got myself a "fun drink" of a decaf latte to go with my dessert. Yipee.... :)



Not sure I would really rush back to Il Vesco Vino, but it was a fun night with good food.

Ben's Review
Last Sunday, Erin wanted to go out and she wanted to have Italian food, and for the time being, we eat what she wants to eat :) We looked over our list for a Italian places and came down to Al Vento and Il Vesco Vino. The menu at Al Vento looked a little smaller so we headed down West 7th by Xcel Energy Center to Il Vesco Vino.

When we walked in we found the host booth by the door, but no host. We poked around a bit and eventually someone came over to seat us ("Sorry, Cocktail is on TV!" was her excuse :) The place was COMPLETELY empty, there were more employees huddled around the TV than customers. Being a Sunday night in downtown Saint Paul I wasn't really expecting a big crowd, and we got great service, so I can't complain.


We were quickly served up some bread and olive oil (though no pepper at the table!) while we looked over the menus. On Sundays they have a deal for $25 that gets you an entree, a salad, and dessert which seemed like a pretty good deal. You can't have any entree; there is a select list of ones that are available with the special, but there are plenty to choose from. I went with the linguine bolognese for my entree, with a caprese salad (I'd actually been craving this for awhile, even though I dislike tomatoes), I also got a glass of wine.



The caprese salad was HUGE! I was expecting a single "stack" of tomato slice, mozzarella, and basil, but instead I got five four, it was absurd. Between the delicious bread (two baskets) and the five four pieces of cheese, I was full enough to call it a night, but I wasn't throwing in the towel just yet. The bolognese was excellent, it was another recommendation from Erin, as I was having trouble deciding what to order. I should have stopped eating sooner than I did so I could have had more leftovers for lunch, but it just tasted too good.



For my dessert I got the turtle semifreddo, which I thought was good, but not worth the $8 you would normally have to spend to get it. Overall, a great (and filling) meal.


Also, I want to mention that every Monday night during the summer, Il Vesco Vino teams up with Stogies on Grand to have a cigar and drink special on the patio. $15 gets you a cigar paired with a drink from the bar. I want to hit this up before August is over, we have to get our smoking done in the summer months in Minnesota!
  • Service: Great service, it helped that there was nobody else there :)
  • Food: My pasta was great, and I loved the humongous salad.
  • Drinks: They've got a huge mirrored bar behind the bartender that is FULLY stocked.
  • Ambiance: We ate in the bar area, but there is also a separate dining room. I liked the bar ambiance, it was casual but still felt like a nice dinner. I think the dining room might be a bit too stuffy for my taste. They've also got a patio, but it was raining that night.
  • Price: We ended up paying a little more because of the $25 deal, I probably wouldn't have gotten a salad or dessert otherwise. The prices are certainly reasonable though.
  • Convenience: Parking on a Sunday night is no problem, but it's kind of hit or miss on West 7th normally (in my experience).
Il Vesco Vino
242 West 7th St.
St. Paul